1998 was NOT a great year for pop music and rock n’ roll. Between tepid R&B, bullshit rap/metal amalgamations, juvenile Southern rap, and the re-emergence of boy bands, it is remembered by most as a possible nadir for Top 40 radio.
Half a world away in Glasgow, Scotland an 8-piece outfit by the name of Belle & Sebastian (the bands name pays homage to a children’s book) was releasing their third LP, “The Boy With the Arab Strap”, to a largely underground audience.
Helmed by the sickly and well-read Stuart Murdoch, who sang lead vocals and played guitar, the group cultivated a cult following first in the U.K. and then in the US. Their sophomore release “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, and first release to be released outside Scotland, got noticed for its proclivity of eccentric lyrics, multiple instrumental attack and fresh approach to folk and chamber pop. While it wasn’t for everyone those who appreciated it, like Randy W. Hall, devoured it and spread the gospel of the band wherever and whenever they could.
Also, in between releasing ‘Sinister’ in 1996 and ‘Arab Strap’ in 1998 the group helped satiate fans and build interest by releasing 3 sensational EP’s that were full of excellence that showed the song-writing chops and eclectic range all the various instruments brought to the table.
With ‘Arab Strap’ they expanded on their sonic palette and gave sad, arty types a band they could rally behind.
From the pulsating ‘Sleep the Clock Around’ to the nursery-rhyme clarion call of ‘Is It Wicked Not To Care?’ and the innocent vocals of Isobel Campbell the band served notice they were a band out-of-step with the times in the best way possible. The fantastical and well-produced ‘Seymour Stein’, using the Sire records impresario as lyrical fodder was meta in the most satisfying way. Throw in the Motowny brilliance of ‘Dirty Dream #2’ and the confident, shuffling powerhouse of the title track, the record was full of highlights and songs Music fans rarely got to discover during the era.
With the musical adventurousness of “Forever Changes”-era Love, the lyrical introspection and vocal phrasings of Nick Drake and informed by 60’s pop the bands modernized take on twee found a grateful and rabid audience on both sides of the Atlantic.